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‘I wish I could do it forever’: The story of Dean Sue’s decades at Duke, from student to dean to faculty-in-residence

<p>For the past four decades, Sue Wasiolek has been a University icon and a bastion of the Duke community.&nbsp;</p>

For the past four decades, Sue Wasiolek has been a University icon and a bastion of the Duke community. 

When I called Sue Wasiolek on a Thursday in late June, it was her final week as faculty-in-residence in Gilbert-Addoms dorm. Earlier that day, she had given a tour of her apartment for the next faculty-in-residence. On Wednesday, she would begin moving her things out.

By Saturday night, she’d be gone.

“I thought the saddest day of my life was the day that I was told that I would no longer be the dean of students,” said Wasiolek, who was wearing a striped V-neck and a pair of AirPods. “But I think the saddest day of my life will be next week when I move out of [Gilbert-Addoms].”

For the past four decades, Wasiolek has been a University icon and a bastion of the Duke community. She has spent 40 years with the University’s Division of Student Affairs, and her fingerprints are on every facet of student life, from mental health services and residential life to Greek life and disability services. 

During her eight years as faculty-in-residence in Gilbert-Addoms, she welcomed hundreds of first-years into her cow-themed apartment, offering fresh-baked brownies and a big smile. When students tried to burn a bench without a permit after a basketball game, Wasiolek was there, surrounded by students, grinning and snapping selfies with Cameron Crazies. She has taught, advised and mentored countless Blue Devils. And though she was removed from her role as dean last year, current students, alumni and professors still refer to her as Dean Sue—the beloved, quintessential dean of students.

Now, for the first time in years, incoming first-years will experience East Campus without Wasiolek. As of June 1, she is no longer a faculty-in-residence in Gilbert-Addoms. She also left Student Affairs last December.  

Stunned and sad, the Duke community is reeling from the loss.

“Dean Sue has a legacy. She’s been here so long, and it’s heartbreaking that she’s leaving because she’s devoted her whole life to Duke,” senior Catherine McMillan said. 

She said she and her friends were shocked to find out about Wasiolek’s departure from East Campus. 

“I just wonder if it had to be this way,” McMillan said. 

On July 2, Wasiolek moved into a townhouse in Durham. She now has a job as executive-in-residence at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, and she will be teaching higher education law at North Carolina State University this fall. 

Leaving Gilbert-Addoms was painful, Wasiolek said.

“I can get very teary eyed about it. Because I really feel like it’s the end of something that has been just such a source of joy for me … to be living right there on the hall with [the students], and to share their experiences, and to maybe pretend that you can make a difference in their lives,” Wasiolek said. “But at the end of the day, they're the ones that have made the difference in my life, every single one of those students, whether it's been someone who has come and wanted to borrow a cup of sugar, or a student who has come to one of my Tuesday open houses, or it's been a student who's looking for academic advice, or a student who is facing some kind of disciplinary action, or maybe it's a student who has just experienced some real tragedy in their lives. It doesn't matter. It has been the most meaningful eight years that I have spent at Duke. And I wish I could do it forever.”

‘No matter how old I get, I’ll never forget’

On Wasiolek’s first day on Duke’s campus, she had macaroni and cheese and blueberry pie in the room that now houses JB’s Roast and Chops and The Skillet. It was August 1973, and she had come to tour Duke with her high school computer science teacher after enrolling earlier that year. She remembers being in awe as she toured campus. 

“It was one of those moments that no matter how old I get, I'll never forget: driving down Chapel Drive and seeing the chapel and thinking, ‘Holy cow. I'm going to get to go to college here,’” she said.

She was the first in her family to go to college. Her father had dropped out of eighth grade and ended up working at a textile mill in Charlotte, where Wasiolek grew up. Her mother had graduated high school and gone to secretarial school and had a job processing tax forms for H&R Block. 

Wasiolek knew her parents wanted her to go to college, but she also knew they wouldn’t be able to cover the cost.

She was drawn to Duke’s challenging academics, and she received a hefty financial aid package from the University. In the spring of 1973, she elected to attend Duke.

But when she got to school that fall, she felt out of place as a first-generation, low-income student.

“I was pretty lost. I was emotionally sort of lost, I was physically lost and I struggled. I struggled enormously for a good period of time to feel like I belonged at Duke,” she said.

But Wasiolek found community in her residence hall in Broughton House in Kilgo K/L, where she was treasurer for her house council.

Back then, male students who wanted to visit the female residence halls in the evenings had to check in at a front desk. Wasiolek had a job working the desk at Broughton, where she would take the men’s names and call the female students to check if they were there. If they weren’t, she would sit and laugh and chat with the guys. It helped her get to know people and stay grounded, she said. 

She also often hung out at a place called the “dope shop,” which was part of Duke Stores and was “like an old greasy spoon diner,” she said. A woman named Hazel worked there on the weekends, and Wasiolek would go to sit and chat with her about family, academics and life.

“I don’t even know if Hazel graduated from high school, but she was a woman who taught me how to listen. She would just listen and she would ask me great questions. And I felt like she cared about me,” she said. 

Wasiolek was on the pre-med track, but she had a 2.89 GPA. After receiving seven rejection letters from medical schools, she decided to pursue Duke’s graduate degree in health and hospital administration. 

“I literally talked my way into graduate school. I begged them to let me in, and they did,” she said.

While in graduate school, Wasiolek was a resident assistant at East Residence Hall and later at Hanes House, an experience that gave her purpose and made her feel alive.

After finishing graduate school, she still hoped to apply to medical school, but an 18-month stint as a clinic manager convinced her she didn’t like the medical field after all. 

“Then, some of my friends said, you know, ‘You were so happy when you were an RA, you loved being an RA,’” Wasiolek said.

At the time, a job had opened up in University Student Affairs: administrative assistant to Duke’s dean for student life. Wasiolek applied and got the job in October 1979.

“I knew within three days that this was something that I was going to do for a while, that maybe I had found what it was that was going to give me the energy I was looking for, that was going to enable me to be connected. And I think I figured out very early on that maybe, just maybe, I was going to be in a position to help other students create and find that sense of belonging I never had as an undergrad,” she said. 

In May 1981, Wasiolek became dean of student life, and she stayed in student affairs for about 40 years. After completing her J.D. at North Carolina Central University and LLM at Duke in 1993, she stepped away to practice law from 1994 to 1995, but the experience was never as fulfilling as working with students, she said.

“I was still advising a couple clubs and organizations on campus so students would call me, and I would have messages on my desk to return, and I would find myself wanting to return those calls to the students, but not to the clients,” she said.

After a nine-month hiatus in law, she returned to student affairs. Over the years, she has been assistant to the dean for student life, the dean for student life, the dean of students, associate vice president for student affairs and senior advisor to the vice provosts.

‘Like having a parent in the building’

Wasiolek became faculty-in-residence in Gilbert-Addoms in 2013. Every Tuesday evening, Wasiolek would host an open house, where students would stream into her apartment, lured by the smell of brownies. She hosted guest speakers from Duke and Durham, and she would often go out with students to get ice cream or to stroll around downtown.

On Thanksgiving Day, students could stop by her apartment for steaming plates of turkey and mashed potatoes. Christmas meant building gingerbread houses with Wasiolek or admiring her Christmas tree, which was always decorated with cow ornaments. Ever since her former husband David Malechek gifted her a stuffed cow in 1977, Wasiolek has collected “all kinds of cow things,” she said. 

Senior Sara Kate Baudhuin, who was a resident in Gilbert-Addoms during the 2018-19 academic year, said Wasiolek helped her navigate the unfamiliarity and loneliness of coming to Duke for the first time. She remembers Wasiolek asking her lots of questions—and remembering the answers in detail.

“She was one of the first people when I was a first-year who I felt really known by and who really made an effort to make this place feel like home,” Baudhin said. “And she does that for everybody. I have watched her do this with hundreds and hundreds of students.”

Junior Lana Gesinsky, who also lived in Gilbert-Addoms, used to stop by Wasiolek’s room every week for cookies, snacks and watch parties for “The Bachelor.” When Gesinsky was elected a senator for Duke Student Government, Wasiolek sent an email congratulating her, even though she had only known Wasiolek for two weeks.

“It was just so comforting freshman year to be able to go somewhere. It kind of just felt like having a parent in the building,” Gesinsky said. 

Over the years, Gilbert-Addoms became Wasiolek’s home.

“To have an open door and to have students just wander in, to be able to go to concerts with students and go to dinners and have Thanksgiving dinner every year in my apartment for the students who are left on campus, there’s nothing that defines home to me more than that,” she said. “I may have come in 1973 and not felt like I belonged, but for the last eight years in [Gilbert-Addoms], I’ve really felt a sense of belonging, and all I’ve wanted to do is share that with the other students.”

‘People have different directions in which they want to go’

The beginning of the end came in fall 2019, when Wasiolek learned that in the following May, she would be transitioning from her longtime role as dean of students to a new role as senior advisor to Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for student affairs, and to Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education.  

“New leadership comes in, and people have different directions in which they want to go, and I assumed that that was part of that decision,” Wasiolek said.

When asked why Wasiolek was removed from her role as dean of students, McMahon wrote that she cannot offer comment on personnel issues “as a matter of policy.” 

Over the summer of 2020, Wasiolek worked on the Keep Learning project with Alumni Affairs, but she missed her old role and the opportunities it afforded to interact daily with students and their parents. She had a contract to continue as senior advisor until December 2021, but in November 2020, she notified McMahon that she would be leaving the role.

“It was a great loss for me to not be able to continue as the dean of students,” Wasiolek said. “And moving forward for me beyond that really required that I asked myself a lot of questions as to what was going to be meaningful to me. What was going to be fulfilling? What was going to make me happy? And how was I going to deal with that loss?”

Around the same time, in fall 2020, Wasiolek had been growing concerned about her future as a faculty-in-residence and adjunct faculty member. She had contracts to continue in both roles through spring 2021, but it was unclear whether either contract would be extended beyond the spring semester.

“In both of those cases, I continued to ask questions about the status of my contract. And I just wasn't getting great clarity in any of those,” she said. “'I’m a planner, I like to plan ahead. And I knew that if I didn't live in the residence hall, I was gonna have to find someplace to live.”

By the end of the fall semester, Wasiolek had notified the administration that she would be leaving her faculty-in-residence position after spring 2021. That December, she signed a contract to be executive-in-residence at Arcadia University.

Wasiolek said that later in December, she did eventually receive confirmation that she would have been able to extend her faculty-in-residence position, but her plans were set by then—it was too late.

“I want to take responsibility for the decisions I made. And I don’t want to push that responsibility on anybody else,” Wasiolek said. “Obviously, I would have liked the information when I wanted it. It didn’t happen the way that I wanted it to sort of roll out. And I had to make some decisions, I had to make some choices. They weren’t easy choices to make. And I try really hard not to look back and have any regrets. … Some might call me impatient. Maybe some people would say that I jumped the gun. But I did what I felt like I needed to do.”

McMillan said she wished University administration could have found a fitting role for Wasiolek to continue working at Duke.

“I understand that new leadership is important,” she said. “But there’s also something really special and really important about institutional knowledge and having decades of experiences behind you.”

The Chronicle emailed McMahon to ask if Wasiolek requested clarification on whether her faculty-in-residence contract would be extended into the 2021-22 academic year, and if members of the administration notified Wasiolek later on that her contract could have been extended.

“Dean Sue informed me in November 2020 of her plans to step away from the senior advisor [role] at the end of the fall 2020 semester,” McMahon wrote. “As Senior Advisor, Dean Sue's efforts with both the ‘C Team’ and the Keep Learning program were phenomenal. Her leadership helped Duke and Student Affairs successfully navigate the early and very uncertain time of the pandemic. I know Dean Sue continued on as FIR for GA through the spring 2021 semester.” 

“We certainly have our work cut out for us in sustaining Dean Sue's extraordinary efforts on behalf of students,” McMahon added. “We are still looking for proper ways to recognize Dean Sue's five decades of transformative impact on Duke's campus. I regret that the pandemic made this much tricker to do up until now. Our hope is to find ways in 2021-22 to do just this in a way fitting with her wishes, too.”

When asked if Wasiolek requested clarification on whether her contract for faculty-in-residence could be extended or if administration members answered her questions, Bennett referred to McMahon’s statement.

“I don't have much more to add beyond Mary Pat's earlier message, which captures the key details related to Sue's transitions,” he wrote. “As we move out of the fog of the past year, I hope that we can find [many] ways to acknowledge Sue's contributions to the lives of so many Dukies and to the culture of this community.” 

This fall, Wasiolek will be teaching education law at North Carolina State University, which she has been doing for the past 15 years. Her administrative position at Arcadia will continue until January 2022. Wasiolek also has a “big project” with a “school on the west coast,” she said. 

She will also still be teaching Education 101 in spring 2022 as adjunct associate professor in the program of education, and she will continue to be a college advisor for first-years and sophomores.

Kisha Daniels, assistant professor of the practice of education, is listed as the next faculty-in-residence for Gilbert-Addoms. 

‘That’s what I hope they remember me as’

Does Wasiolek wish she could return to Gilbert-Addoms? 

Absolutely, she says, though she doesn’t think that’s a possibility.

Some people think it’s weird that she enjoyed being around young adults so much. Others have told her that she was brave or courageous. But for her, the students have always been family.

“You get home at night, and you walk in the front of [Gilbert-Addoms], and there are students everywhere,” she said. “They're in the study room, in the conference room, they're hanging out, they're going to Marketplace to get something to eat. And invariably, when you walk in, one of them will say, ‘How was your day, Dean Sue?’ That's what families do. That's what people who care about each other do. They ask, ‘How was your day?’ And so, I have felt very cared for. And I hope that the students have felt the same. Because that’s what I hope they remember me as: someone that cared about and for them.”

***

When I called Wasiolek again in August, she had moved into her townhouse in Durham, where she now has an elderly neighbor.

“I’m going from living with 18-year-olds to having a 95-year-old. So I think what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna throw a lot of parties with the 95-year-old and invite Duke students over,” she said, grinning. (Her neighbor is now 96.) 

The next morning was move-in day for the Class of 2025, and Wasiolek planned to help first-years move in to Gilbert-Addoms. 

“It makes me really happy to think about that,” she said, her eyes dancing. “I think it will probably be my last time. And I think several months ago, I may have thought it was gonna make me enormously sad. But I think tomorrow will bring some closure for me.”


Chris Kuo | Enterprise Editor

Chris Kuo is a Trinity junior and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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